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12/25/05

The Charlie Brown sermon...

I preached this sermon at my church a year ago. I refer to Charlie Brown briefly at the end, but to this day people still mention the time I talked about Charlie Brown in my sermon. I guess it stuck with them. I wonder if anything else did? I admit, my sermons tend to be long on explanation and short on connection to the experience of life. That's one factor that helped me discern my calling to be a professor rather than a pastor. But, maybe you'll find some benefit from it. Since the post is so long, I made the font a little smaller than usual in an effort to save space; I hope it's still readable. Oh, and...Merry Christmas!

Close to Christmas every year (and usually around Easter too), you can find magazine articles like this one in “Newsweek” from a few weeks ago. It says (…) There is tremendous curiosity in the world about the life of Jesus and what we can know about Him. Many people wonder if we really have reliable information about Him.

Fortunately, the information we have about Jesus’ life can be shown to be reliable, but I’m not going to focus on that. When I preach from Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, I’m going to focus on the meaning of that birth, because I believe that’s what Luke focuses on. But, Luke also wants you to remember, and I do too, that Jesus’ birth actually happened. It’s a fact of history. He emphasizes this by recounting details about the time and the place that it happened and recording the people who were there and the surrounding circumstances. Therefore, Luke proceeds with the premise that because Jesus’ birth actually took place, it therefore means something to us. The question to ask is: How will we respond?

Luke 2:1-20. In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! That’s what a song says about the Christmas season. And certainly, there are lots of great things about this time of year.

Of course, gifts are a wonderful part of Christmas. And, its not just getting gifts, but it’s the giving too. It’s obvious that people are much more giving this time of year. I mean, you can’t get away with ringing a bell outside of the supermarket in June and expect people to give you their pocket change. And, churches and other charitable organizations always expect larger portions of their income to arrive in December. People commonly give away coats and food to the poor. College kids volunteer to serve a meal or two at a local soup kitchen. These are wonderful things!

And the importance of family is usually remembered during this season. Whether it means packing up the kids and driving across 3 states in order to have Christmas dinner at great-aunt Sally’s house; or, searching every store in the city to find the perfect gift for your spouse. Christmas is the season when other pursuits and commitments get put on hold so we can make family a priority. This too is a wonderful thing the Christmas season does for us.

All of you could probably name some other of your favorite aspects of Christmas that I didn’t mention. Yet, with all these wonderful things, why is it that, for many of us, the Christmas season can also be a time of depression and stress? Often, those very things that are supposed to be wonderful about Christmas can also become burdens to our hearts.

After all, the gifts and the giving of Christmas are wonderful, but it can highlight the selfishness that dominates our lives the rest of the year. Making a year-end gift to charity reminds us that we don’t consider the poor most of the time. So, we can feel guilty about that and even guiltier that we don’t really want to give anyway. When we give out of a sense of obligation (or for tax purposes), we recognize the selfishness and hardness of our hearts against the needs of others.

Yet, we may feel not only burdened with guilt at Christmas, but also by feelings of doubt. For instance, for those of us in tight financial circumstances, this can be a season when deep worry about the future sets in. After all, at Christmas time, we’ve not only got to worry about making our usual ends meet, but we’ve got to figure out a way to scrounge up some extra dollars to give to the bell-ringers so we don’t look like Scrooges, and to buy presents for Mom and Dad and brother and sister and best-friend and a secret-Santa gift at work. It’s no wonder that we can be burdened with increased feelings of doubt about our financial security.

What is more, besides our burdens of guilt and doubt that are heightened at this time of year, we may also be burdened by an acute sense of our powerlessness. For one, we feel powerless to change those very things that we feel guilty about and those things that stir up our doubts. Others, who struggle with depression, can feel an overwhelming burden to put on the smiling face that they think others expect this time of year. It is understandable that one might feel powerless in the face of this kind of brokenness. And, if we’re powerless in the face of our own brokenness, it’s sometimes a greater burden to face that of others. Gathering with the family for Christmas dinner, may mean having to deal with an aunt who’s an alcoholic. Or, it could mean seeing a cousin who has tried to commit suicide. It burdens our hearts when we feel powerless to truly help these people we care about.

Now, of course it’s true that Christmas isn’t the only time of year that we are burdened by feelings of guilt, doubt, and powerlessness—they can and do weigh upon us at any time. But, maybe some of you here today struggle with these burdens in particular at this time of year. And, you may understandably be asking, “What is really so wonderful about Christmas?”

Well, I can tell you that the real wonderfulness of Christmas is that Jesus was born. Whatever burdens weigh upon your heart because of guilt or doubt or powerlessness, it’s still true that Jesus was born. And what that means is no matter what circumstances you are in, there is cause for joy. There is cause for joy because God is telling you that He takes your burdens seriously. He knows how deeply your feelings of guilt, doubt, and powerlessness affect you. And, because He takes your burdens seriously, God determines to do something about them, to relieve and even overcome them. The sign, the proof, of this determination is that Jesus was born. Therefore…

Rejoice for the birth of Jesus.

When the angels report the birth to the shepherds they call it “good news of great joy.” This birth is a joyous occasion. And, the text indicates the proper response is for us to rejoice. Now, we aren’t given an explicit command. But, we shouldn’t really expect one, since this is an historical narrative. Yet, we can often figure out our obligation from an historical narrative by observing the characters.

Certainly, we see rejoicing going on here. After the angel announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, Luke tells us in v.13 that, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.’” By this we see that even heaven rejoices for the birth of Jesus. And, the shepherds too, after they travel to Bethlehem to see the newborn child, they rejoice for the birth of Jesus. As Luke tells us in v.20, “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Clearly, Luke is leading us to understand that the only proper response to the birth of Jesus is to rejoice.

But, there is more. There are reasons why the birth of Jesus is a cause for joy. Luke wants us to know that the child born in Bethlehem is not just any child. So, he records for our sake the wonderful announcement of the angel in v.11 that, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” This announcement reveals why the birth of Jesus is such good news of great joy for all people who are burdened with guilt and doubt and powerlessness. It is because of who Jesus is.

First, the angel tells us that Jesus is Savior.

We rejoice because a Savior has been born to us. But, what does this mean? I think there are two questions we can ask to help us understand what it means that Jesus is born as Savior.

First, what do we need saving from?

Well, it’s easy to see that our world is full of brokenness. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. It has been said that human depravity is the most empirically verifiable claim of theology. It is proven by everything from the most heinous acts of war and genocide, to the everyday injustices of society, to the commonplace acts of deceit and selfishness in every relationship.

Yet, sin is not just some remote theological notion “out there”. It is right within us. Every time we fail to make God our priority, every time we turn our back on the need of our neighbor, every act of selfishness that we make excuse for—these are outworkings of the sin that is rooted deep within us. And, in moments when we see ourselves clearly, we feel guilty. We feel guilty because we are guilty. We are guilty because our sin is not just a failure to reach our potential; it is rebellion against God. He made us to serve and honor Him, to be His image-bearers in the world to bring Him glory. When we sin we are failing in and even rejecting this purpose for which God created us. Because of this failure and rejection, this rebellion, God must act righteously and judge our sin. This is what we need saving from—God’s judgment and condemnation directed against us because of our sin.

Well, this truth brings tremendous depth to what it means that Jesus is Savior. But, it leads to a second question…

What are we saved for?

By this, I’m not asking, “Why are we saved?” Instead I mean, if Jesus can save us from the judgment and condemnation of God that we rightly deserve because of our guilt, what new relationship with God can we now have? The answer is: we are saved for a life of peace with God instead of enmity. We are saved for a relationship of grace with God instead of condemnation. This is what the angels mean when they praise Him in v.14 saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” It would be wonderful enough if Jesus merely saved us from the threat of God’s condemnation and left us at peace with God, but Jesus does so much more than that. For, He actually establishes for us a new relationship with God that is not based on anything we do—sinful or righteous—but based on grace, God’s unmerited favor toward us.

For these reasons, it is indeed good news of great joy that Jesus is Savior. And, even we who are burdened by guilt can rejoice in this truth. Because, it is those who are guilty that Jesus came to save. He came to save those who break God’s commandments. Sure, we may not steal from anyone, but in our hearts we covet our neighbor’s possessions or status. We may not commit adultery, but we lust after those to whom we are not married. We may not murder anyone, but we hate our neighbor or even our brother for the smallest offense against us. For all these sins, and countless others, we are certainly guilty before God.

But once again, the good news that we can rejoice in is, Jesus was born as Savior. He was born to save us from the condemnation we deserve from God because we are guilty before Him. Jesus did this by being born—so that He could die. For, we must look forward from the birth of Jesus to His death. It is Jesus’ death on the Cross that is the ground for our salvation. In His death, Jesus suffered the condemnation and punishment that we deserve because of our guilt, though He Himself was without any guilt. He bore our burden of guilt and suffered the consequences we deserve in order to save us. And, He has done it; He is Savior.

Therefore, it is us who are guilty who ought to rejoice for Jesus’ birth. Our guilt no longer defines our relationship with God; it no longer determines how He will treat us. Since Jesus was born Savior of the guilty, we can know that, even in the depth of our guilt, we have peace with God, His favor is upon us, because Jesus is our Savior. It is the birth of this Savior that gives us such cause to rejoice.

There is another truth that helps explain why we rejoice for Jesus’ birth: Jesus is Christ.

It is so common to simply say the name “Jesus Christ”, that we may often forget the significance of this title. But the fact that Jesus was born Christ is a key reason why we can rejoice for His birth. You see, Christ means, “anointed one”. It is a title for Jesus used in the New Testament that refers to an idea in the Old Testament of “the Messiah”, which also means, “anointed one”. When David was king of Israel, God promised him that a descendant of his would rule God’s people forever. This was the promise referred to in the Psalm we read in the Call to Worship. After this promise, the idea of a “Messiah” was linked to this king promised from God; we see this idea develop in the Psalms and Prophets. And, especially in the Prophets, like Isaiah, the figure of the Messiah is developed as the One who will bring peace and justice and righteousness into the world, and even more amazingly, He will open up God’s kingdom not only to Israel but also to all people from all the nations.

By the time of the New Testament, this was the understanding of “Messiah” or “Christ” that the faithful people of God would have had. They would have been longing for God to fulfill His promise to send a Christ to establish His kingdom throughout the world. And Luke beckons us to look to Jesus for this fulfillment. First he tells us that Joseph, who was the human, adoptive father of Jesus, was from the house and line of David. Then, we are told that Jesus was actually born in David’s town of Bethlehem, which fulfills a prophecy of the Messiah in Micah 5:2. These details connect the birth of Jesus to the Davidic promise, that God’s anointed One would be a descendant of David and who would rule God’s people in faithfulness and righteousness forever. Then definitively, once Jesus is born, the angel announces Him to be Christ. For, the birth of Jesus, or really Jesus Himself, is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David and therefore to all His people.

Lately, I have been developing the conviction that nearly everything God teaches us about Himself is for the purpose of inspiring our trust in Him. And clearly, what we learn in this passage, that Jesus is Christ, directly confronts any burden of doubt we may feel and assures us that we can trust in God.

This is so because, in the birth of Jesus, we see God to be One who keeps His promises. He promised to send a righteous ruler for His people from the house of David, and He fulfilled that promise in the most wonderful way. And, we learn that God’s Word is unalterable—even at a great cost to Himself. For, you can be sure that the birth of Jesus was costly to the Father, since He knew that Jesus was born to die. And, you can be sure that His own birth was costly to Jesus, for at that moment He stepped out of an eternally glorious heavenly existence, in order to dwell in a fragile baby’s flesh and to have His glory veiled in the life of a Man. Yet, despite these costs, God’s character demanded that He keep His promise to us, whom He loved, to save us and establish His kingdom of righteousness forever.

Do you have doubts about the future? Do you worry about whether you will be able to make financial ends meet? Are you anxious about the state of tension in our world? Do you doubt that you could ever be loved or accepted by anyone, even God? Do you worry about what kind of people your children will grow up to be? These concerns and many others like them are understandable, and common to us all. Yet the good news we receive today is that we who are burdened by doubts can rejoice for the birth of Jesus. Because, Jesus was born Christ, for us who are burdened by doubt. He was born to show us doubtful people that God is faithful. Therefore, we can trust Him and not doubt!

You see, relief for your doubt is available. But, the power to relieve your burden of doubt isn’t in your ability to have more faith. Rather, the power is in the perfectly faithful God who will keep every promise, as He has proven by keeping the biggest, most costly promise of sending His Christ into the world to draw us into the security of God’s kingdom. Therefore, whatever doubts remain, let us rejoice for the birth of Jesus, the Christ.

It would be wonderful enough, and enough cause for joy if Jesus was only born as Savior and Christ. But, since you know that a sermon needs three points, you can be sure there is something more. And, fortunately, it’s even in the text! For, the angel tells us not only that Jesus is Savior and Christ, but also that…

Jesus is Lord.

In the world of Jesus’ birth, the term “Lord”, which in the Greek is “kurios”, could be used in different ways. One could use it in a way similar to the English word “sir”, simply as a salutation of respect. Or, it could be used to refer to someone who had some authority as a ruler, such as the emperor who might be referred to as “lord”. But, for a faithful believer in the covenant God of Israel, the title could carry a special meaning, because it was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament Bible to render the divine name, to refer to the one, true, and living God. What this means is that, anyone familiar with the Bible around the time of Jesus’ birth who believed in the God of Israel would have thought of Him as the only true “kurios”, the only Lord. Yet here, in the angel’s announcement, Jesus is identified as Lord.

Now, we shouldn’t expect the shepherds to understand the full implications of what this meant. How could they comprehend that the great and glorious God revealed in Scripture, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the covenant God of the people of Israel could possibly be born in the flesh, born as a human, born as a fragile baby? But, we have the benefit of further revelation. By the mystery of the Trinity revealed in the New Testament, we know that Jesus is the Son of God; we know He was with God in the beginning and that He was God; we know that by Jesus all things were created and in Him all things hold together. Therefore, we can know that the announcement by the angel means something more glorious than those shepherds could ever have imagined: the one and only God, the Lord, entered the world that night, stepped into history that night, in a new and special way, born as a baby, Jesus.

We are called to believe an amazing truth in the birth of Jesus. For, Jesus is not just born as royalty; He is the King of kings. And, He is not just born with the potential to rule God’s people; He is the Lord. As we sang earlier, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come; let earth receive her king.” And, this joy is for us who realize we are powerless. When we are burdened by the thought that we are powerless to change our sinful patterns; when we are burdened by the reality that we are powerless to fix the problems in the lives of our loved ones; when we are burdened by a sense that we are powerless to honor God with the faithful service He deserves—it is at those times that we ought to rejoice for the birth of Jesus.

We rejoice because we see that power beyond all reckoning has entered the world. Though the Lord veiled His glory in the flesh of an infant, he never relinquished His power. This same Jesus who was born that night long ago, showed Himself powerful to heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, control nature, and even save sinners. This same Jesus, after He died for our sins and rose again in power to conquer both sin and death, told us that He possessed all authority in heaven and on earth and that He would be with us always, even to the end of the age. We who are powerless rejoice for the birth of Jesus, because in His birth the Lord came to be with us, and now the Lord remains with us forever, and therefore His power is with us, and for us, forever.

Most of you who know me well know that I love movies. Last time I preached here I was even able to work in a reference to a zombie movie. But, it’s Christmas time, so Christmas movies are on my mind, and my favorite of all is “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. Many of you have probably seen it too, and I hope you like it as much as I do because, I think it’s worth liking.

Charlie Brown, of course, is a little boy who can’t seem to catch a break. As the movie begins, he is feeling depressed during the Christmas season. And, he can’t understand why he feels that way at a time when everyone else seems so joyful. He tries to get involved in activities like the Christmas pageant that his friends are involved in, but nothing seems to help. In fact, everything he does seems to end in failure and frustration. Finally, he cries out in desperation, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about!?” Well, to answer him, Charlie Brown’s friend Linus quotes this passage that we read in Luke 2. It’s a scene that still chokes me up.

You see, the reason I like movies so much is that, I find they communicate, in a way that is very clear, the issues and big questions of life that we all face. Charlie Brown represents everyone who is burdened by life, everyone who knows the suffering of failure and frustration. People like us who are burdened with feelings of guilt, doubt, and powerlessness can relate to Charlie Brown, especially at Christmas. And we wonder, “What is Christmas all about?”

The meaning and message of Christmas that is revealed by God, through His angel, recorded in the gospel, is that, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” It is to you who are guilty that the Savior has been born. It is to you who doubt that the Christ has been born. It is to you who are powerless that the Lord has been born. Whatever burdens you struggle under, it is to you that Jesus has been born. Rejoice for this good news today!

1 comment:

Mark said...

Thanks for posting your Christmas sermon--I like it quite a bit. Praise the Lord! Definitely a "trustworthy saying, deserving full acceptance."

G.K. Chesterton...

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."